On Sunday, the NFL held its annual Pro Bowl matchup between the stars from the AFC and the NFC at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. After a plethora of touchdowns and turnovers alike, the AFC squad earned a 41-35 victory over the NFC, the conference’s fifth consecutive win in the All-Star contest.
Despite the excitement that the weekend’s festivities were supposed to bring to fans, many were unhappy with the lack of competition and fierce play between the players during the game, a trend that has been recurring every year for the last several seasons. Personally, I wasn’t looking forward to the game, as at this point in my football-viewing career I’ve become well aware that the Pro Bowl is a sorry excuse for a professional football game. It was only after seeing a clip on social media of the Saints’ Alvin Kamara catching a pass and the AFC defense passing up at least five opportunities to tackle him before the play was whistled dead that I began to wonder whether the Pro Bowl should simply be removed entirely. Most football fans know that the Pro Bowl is a game where the players are trying to have fun and are doing their best to avoid unnecessary injuries. But, I feel like not tackling players in a game that literally plays by the defense attempting to tackle the offense draws the line. It’s an embarrassment for one of the biggest sports leagues in the entire world.
After questioning whether other people are actually tuning in to see the Pro Bowl in all of its glory, I came across some very telling statistics. According to the global data platform, Statista, of the 21 Pro Bowl games that took place from 2000-2020, only seven games recorded 10 million or more viewers. Over that span, the 2011 matchup is the most watched Pro Bowl game with 13.4 million viewers. For comparison, the Pro Bowl in today’s media-driven society is watched by fewer people than the first Super Bowl in 1967, which saw almost 11 million more viewers than that 2011 game. Although exact viewership numbers from this year’s Pro Bowl are unclear, it is more than likely that the game was not even the most watched program on Sunday as the Winter Olympics garnered over nine million viewers, a number that the Pro Bowl hasn’t eclipsed since 2014. Simply put, people don’t want to watch the Pro Bowl, a game that occurs only once every year and features the biggest stars in the NFL.
If the television viewership doesn’t convince you that the Pro Bowl is a waste of every fan’s breath, then the reaction to the game from former and current NFL players should add fuel to the fire. Sports analyst and former tight end for the Broncos and Ravens, Shannon Sharpe, took to Twitter after Sunday’s game, saying “This isn’t football… I love the NFL, but this is embarrassing.” He later followed up on his quote by stating “Maybe it’s beyond fixing at this point, but either tackle [the opposing players] or [the game] is getting canceled. It’s called tackle football. The league can’t be happy with what it witnessed yesterday.”
Former NFL player, analyst and current head football coach of Jackson State University Deion Sanders wrote on Twitter, “Lord help me. I’m watching the [NFL] Pro Bowl and I remember when we were so proud and appreciative of that accolade. We went to [play in] Hawaii to prove [that] we were more than worthy… [which meant that we] competed at practice and in the game… What happened and when?” Many others, too many to fit into one article, expressed their initial reactions to the game both to interviewers and on social media. To sum things up, most reactions weren’t in favor of the way that the game is being played nowadays.
Is there a way to fix the Pro Bowl in its current state? That, I’m afraid, can’t be done, for as long as the game lacks any real competitive nature. Instead, we will continue to see the same effortless and high-scoring affairs between the AFC and NFC. However, there is real potential for the Pro Bowl if the NFL decides to change its structure from that of a traditional football game to add more creativity to the mix. As we saw Sunday when tackles became nonexistent, the game was essentially played like the ultimate hour-long two-hand touch game. Perhaps if the NFL were to change the Pro Bowl to a two-hand touch format, defensive players will actually attempt to down the offense instead of jumping out of the way to avoid injuring their counterparts.
Another proposition, one which I believe most would agree would be the best alternative to today’s format, would be a flag football game between the Pro Bowlers from the AFC and the NFC. Granted, there would need to be additional rules put in place so that positions like quarterback, kicker and punter remain relevant in the contest, but the thought of Trevon Diggs sprinting after Tyreek Hill is more enjoyable in my mind than the thought of the entire AFC defense running away from Alvin Kamara so as to not injure him. In essence, it seems that flag football would serve an epic follow-up to the skill-based competitions that take place before the Pro Bowl on Saturday.
Whatever the NFL does with the Pro Bowl moving forward, it is clear that the format that is currently in place is not working for fans. However, that is not to say that the event is without potential, though it is up to the NFL to finally make the move to a more enjoyable viewing experience. Until then, we will be stuck watching a game of one offense versus the other, while the defense simply shows up and accepts their participation trophy.